What ‘Treme,’ And ‘Breaking Bad’ Tell Us About The Limits of Television

Emily Nussbaum, the television critic at the New Yorker, writes in an even-handed review of David Simon’s HBO series about New Orleans, Treme, which was just renewed for a shortened fourth season, than an episode of the show “made me wonder if, rather than a novel or a movie, a TV show could be a poem.” It’s a perfect way of encapsulating why Treme is both important and sometimes infuriating: it’s a show that challenges our conception of what a television show can be, but that may end up reaffirming our basic demands of the form.

In another television show, if I wished the dialogue would stop so I could listen to a musician finish out a song, watch an artist stitch beads into a badge, or a cook plate a dish, that would be a grave sign of trouble for that show. Given the relative pedestrian nature of much television cinematography and music,Treme stands out for its the quality of its musical performances, its attention to the kinds of details of craft that don’t always drive plots, but that can give an audience profound and vicarious sensual pleasure. I could hang out in LaDonna’s (Khandi Alexander) bar for an entire afternoon watching Albert’s Mardi Gras Indians practice their routines, as they do this season, or at a music showcase watching Annie try out new songs as she prepares to record a studio album. In an episode in the middle of this season, Toni (Melissa Leo) and her daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) go to a performance of Waiting for Godot at the point where the levees were breached. As moving as it was to watch a man in the audience declare Godot isn’t coming, to see Toni tear up at his anger and pain, I almost would have rather been there with them in the audience, experiencing the play for myself. The art Treme puts on screen is almost enough for me to not need the plots and characterization that surround it.

Treme isn’t alone in playing with the potential of television. Breaking Bad, in particular, plays with cinematography much more aggressively than Treme. But that show’s dramatic color saturation, shot composition, and unnerving images are in service of the show’s clear moral throughlines. And Breaking Bad has always paired its striking cinematography with sleek, efficient storytelling. If Breaking Bad‘s A, B, and C storylines are hanks of hair being plaited together into a smooth braid, Treme‘s much larger cast are threads on a loom, showing occasional flashes of jewel color, but often just providing the supporting warp and weft to get us to one performance to the next.

That’s not to say that there aren’t engaging characters or moving moments in Treme outside of the musical performances. There’s joy to be had in watching Antoine Baptiste grousing about a cab fare he believes resulted from an inefficient route, telling the driver “It’s basic geometry, bro…You need to get with the hypotenuse. Don’t believe me, believe Pythagoras. He invented the sides of this shit,” or Ladonna seeking affirmation from a customer, asking him “What do you think about this here? This bar. My bar,” only to get back: “It’s here. And so am I.”

And the Treme is dense and smart on its core theme, how New Orleans alternately neglects and mythologizes itself, and how its most creative tendencies sometimes undermine its chances for success. In this week’s season three premiere, as Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) takes a group of tourists to what he’s trying to tell them are important sites in New Orleans musical history, they become progressively more disgusted with the disarray of the stops along the way. “You mean they can’t manage to clean up a park after two years?” one asks him. “Did you people ever actually preserve anything of note?” another wants to know. They’re not wrong. Meanwhile, Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), who recorded a well-received album that combines jazz with his father’s Indian tribe, gets asked “Where in your imagination did all that come from?” by a purported fan who’s totally unfamiliar with the history of the music he’s enjoying. Next week, Antoine, now teaching music, tells a student “Jennifer, you sound good, girl. You got that real New Orleans riff.” But regretfully, he tells her to get back in synch with the other members of his marching band. “This here is about playing in unison,” he tells her. “When the time comes, you can let that rip.”

And that’s sort of Treme‘s problem. The show isn’t willing to shrug off narrative conventions entirely and spin off into sensory experience. But on the ground, it’s pulled in too many directions, and as a result characters have to tell what they don’t have time to show. Television may have dramatically expanded the emotional and moral weight it’s able to convey in the last decade and a half, and thanks to the widespread availability of cheap flatscreen televisions and prestige cable budgets, television productions are more visually ambitious than they’ve ever been. But Treme is a reminder that for all of these advances, television remains primarily a narrative medium, and we’re a long way from the show that’s really ready to let it rip and step out of line.